We took the kids to the Outback for dinner last week, and after two trips to the bathroom, Jack said he needed to go again. “No,” Joe told him. “You can’t possibly need to go again.”
“But. I have to!”
“Sit down and wait,” Joe suggested. “Your dinner will be here in just a minute.”
“But. But!” Jack shouted. “It’s important to listen to your BODY!”
“Yes,” Joe agreed. “And what is your body telling you?”
I was bent over my salad, picking out the onions, when I heard that question. My head snapped up and we locked eyes. “Why,” I hissed, “Did you ask him that?”
He shrugged nervously, and we both braced ourselves for Jack’s answer.
Now, I know there is no such thing as a dumb question. I was raised on the motto the one who asks the most, knows the most, and I believe that to be true. But there are some things you just don’t ask Jack.
Anything to do with bodily functions, your own appearance, age, death, gravestones, and howler monkeys. While we’re at it, I would also stay off the subject of whether Andrea Bocelli is better than the Four Seasons. Oh, and the speed limit on the New York State Thruway.
A couple of years ago we had a barbecue at our house with Joe’s family. His niece walked in when we were about to sit down for dinner, dressed in a short black skirt and tight tank top. As we gathered around the table, she noticed Jack staring at her and smiled at him coquettishly, all teenage curves and fashion.
“Jack, how do I look?”
I flew across the table, using both hands to snatch up things to put in his mouth—carrot stick, potato chip, margarita—anything to keep him from answering.
“You look,” he considered, “Squeezed.”
My sister-in-law still giggles that she’s never seen me move so fast.
With five kids, my life somewhat revolves around questions. I am no stranger to them. All day long they pepper me with questions, questions, questions. Who, what, when, why?
Then there’s the double question, the “Mom can I ask you a question?” before the actual question.
If I’m in a good mood, I usually answer with a cheery, “Sure, ask me anything!”
If it’s been a long afternoon, I might clench my teeth and say something like, “You DON’T NEED to ask me if you can ask me something. JUST ASK.”
And if it’s been a really long afternoon and it’s the end of summer, I just might say something like, “If you ask me one more thing, I’m going to LIGHT MY EYELASHES ON FIRE.” (I’m totally kidding! I would never say something like that to my kids!)
(I may have said something like that to my kids.)
But oh, the questions.
It’s 8:49 in the morning. I’m sitting at my desk trying to write, and I’ve already answered the following questions:
- Am I allergic to lemons?
- Did Elvis Presley have kids?
- Can we go to Friendly’s for lunch?
- Where are my shoes?
- I have more stwa-bewwies?
- Am I taller than Jack?
- Can we buy roller skates?
- What are woller skates?
- What is the weather in Guam today?
- Why not?
- Can I get the Volcono at Friendly’s?
- Whaddya mean I’m just allergic to good behavior?
- Did you use your Macy’s charge last week?
(Okay, that last question was from Joe. But still: SO MANY QUESTIONS.)
And Jack. When he’s not pronouncing (Life cereal has more grams of sugar than Honeycombs) or announcing (Dusty Springfield recorded Son of a Preacher Man when Aunt Elaine was eight years old) or denouncing (The movie screens in Cinemagic are too big), he’s asking questions.
All the livelong day, questions.
They range from the practical (What time are we eating dinner?) to the esoteric (Why are you thirty-eight?). Religious (What does heaven look like?) to fact-finding (How many people live in Texas?) If he doesn’t hear the answer he likes, he’ll repeat the question over and over and over again. For example, just the other day he asked me what time Mobil Mart opens in the morning. The conversation went like this:
Jack: What time does the Mobil Mart on Elm Street in Manchester open.
Me: I don’t know Jack.
Jack: But what time does it open.
Me: See, the thing is, I don’t know.
Jack: Do you think it opens at 6:00?
Me: I. Don’t. Know.
Jack: How about 7:00.
Me: I HAVE NO IDEA!
Jack (indignant): Stop talking loud. It hurts my ears.
Twenty-seven minutes later:
Jack: Mom. Mom. What time does the Mobil Mart open. In Manchester.
In the name of research for this post, I tried to keep track of how many questions he asked one day last week. I stopped counting at eighty-three. Which doesn’t sound like much, except he was out of the house at karate camp for most of the day.
But lately, I’m starting to read the queries a little differently, to understand that sometimes children reveal a lot about themselves with their requests.
“Mom, can I skip dinner?” is a good sign the stomach bug is on the way.
“Mom, can I always live here? With you and Daddy?” tells me Rose is hoping to keep her happy childhood in place, intact. That she wants to stay a little girl for as long as she can.
On our way out of Hannaford’s other day, four-year old Henry asked me poignantly, “I was good there? At the store?” and I realized how much I’ve been harping on him lately to behave, to be quiet, to be good. After his question, I resolved to praise him more.
And underneath all of his questions, I can see Jack’s anxiety winding around his soul and psyche like a cool, dry snake. Eyes downcast, he begs to know when he’s going to die, when we’re going to die, if our car is going too fast, when the wind chill will drop. And if I take a moment to listen, I really hear I am scared I am nervous I am anxious.
Questions are Jack’s dialogue, his discourse, his way to figure out our world of life and death and music and spiders; his way of orienting himself.
Over the weekend we were packing for a trip to the lake with some friends, and I suggested Jack bring along my mini-speakers so he could listen to his music on the hour-long drive.
“But. But,” he stammered, searching for words. “Won’t that. Irritate the others. To listen to my music?”
With this monotone question, I decided he’s continuing to march along a progressive path, a trajectory that may someday catapult him a little beyond the boundaries of autism spectrum disorder: he’s starting to care about what other people think and feel.
Slowly, he’s realizing that yes—YES, JACK!—an hour of Nicki Minaj would certainly irritate the others.
But, back to our dinner at the Outback.
Maybe you’re wondering about how Jack answered Joe’s question at the restaurant the other night. And so, I’ll tell you.
Nine-year old Jack stood next to our table with his hands on his hips, wearing bright red shorts, a black t-shirt with “I Love Bowling” printed across the front, and an indignant expression. He opened his mouth and shrieked for every blooming onion -eating patron of the Outback to hear:
“My body is telling me to GET RID OF THIS DIARRHEA.”
Maybe there is such a thing as a dumb question.